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We Need Aboriginal Sovereignty Not Constitutional Recognition

Many indigenous leaders believe constitutional recognition will cause divide amongst Australia's First Peoples and provide no real improvements for indigenous communities.
December 5, 2014, 2:44am

Image via Flickr user ​Dutytodo

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been a long-time advocate for the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. Last Friday night, he gave ​a speech explaining that the Australian constitution would be "completed" by such recognition and that a referendum to decide whether to undertake this process will be held in 2017. Earlier this week, New South Wales premier Mike Baird​announced​ his state government was in support of the referendum, whilst over the last few years, the government-funded ​Recognise​ campaign has garnered support from such diverse institutions as the AFL to the national airline Qantas.

But many indigenous leaders see the campaign for constitutional recognition as a mere token gesture. While others believe it will cause divide amongst Australia's First Peoples and provide no real improvements for indigenous communities, which are suffering ​rising suicide rates and levels of incarceration​. What they are calling for is recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty and a treaty.


Calls for a treaty with indigenous Australia are not new. They reached a peak in 1988 when then prime minister Bob Hawke was presented with a petition, known as ​the Barunga statement​, which called for a treaty. Hawke responded with the promise that a treaty would be negotiated by 1990, but that promise was never realised. Recently, the ​Concerned Australians​ group has been making renewed calls for a treaty, whilst earlier this year, Abbott's advisor for indigenous affairs, Warren Mundine, stated the need ​to negotiate a series of treaties​ with each of the different indigenous nations around the country.

According to national indigenous organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union Celeste Liddle, a treaty is needed because at no point since settlement has the Australian government sat down and negotiated "a way forward" with the country's First Peoples. This mutual negotiation would improve the situation on the ground for indigenous people in regards to land rights, resource distribution and historical recognition, while being written into the constitution wouldn't change any of this.

"We've continually had laws imposed upon us. We've definitely been oppressed by the laws of the coloniser government and they continue to wonder why there isn't any advancement. That's because the rights of self-determination, the right to actually have a say in who it is we actually are and what our future should entail is continually denied," Liddle said.


The way this process should be undertaken is still open, as far as Liddle's concerned, but she believes that only a single treaty is needed, with an elected body representing all indigenous nations across the country. She explained: "I see it as a negotiation between two groups of people, the settler population and the First Peoples. And moving that forward, an acknowledgement of the ongoing war, whether it was the frontier battle or the intellectual war that we have now, and trying to solve that."

Terry Mason, senior lecturer at the ​Badanami Centre​ at the University of Western Sydney, explains that the only meaningful way that a treaty can be established, is if Aboriginal sovereignty is first recognised. This would set up a situation where a series of treaties with each of the indigenous nations, could be negotiated between equal parties, each providing a framework where two sovereign nations can work together.

"Sovereignty is our inalienable right and emerging international law, following UN decisions, now says that Aboriginal peoples have the right to self-determination. And part of that is to… be able to be consulted in a way that allows us to give informed, consensual decisions and to do that you have to be treated as equals," Mason said. "If you're going to have a treaty it should be about something that's uniting. If that takes 25 years, then it takes 25 years. That's what nation building is about. It's about two nations talking about how they will coexist."


On the issue of constitutional recognition Mason points out that although the state governments of Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, and NSW have taken steps over the last decade to formally recognise indigenous peoples, there have been no major improvements to issues, such as: the underpayment of wages, the stolen generation, legal funding, advisory groups, and health. He further stated that t​he 2012 report​ by Recognise's expert panel recommended that the issues of sovereignty and treaty be left out of the campaign, as the majority of Australians wouldn't hold these views and they would not contribute to a more united and reconciled nation.

"The Recognise program is not a grassroots program. It is dividing Aboriginal communities and it's going to divide our young people as well. If this is put through without us having a formal discussion about the process and outcome, we're going to have a divided Aboriginal community for generations to come," Mason warned.

But Aboriginal rights activist and lawyer Michael Mansell doesn't see the treaty process as the way forward, as there'd be a problem with its enforcement. What he calls for is the seventh state. ​Section 121​ of the constitution enables the federal government to legislate a new state.

"If you take into account all Aboriginal land, whether it's land rights or native title rights or purchased lands, there's a map around that shows there's more than 2.3 million square kilometres of land. So that could be the territory of the seventh state," Mansell said. "If it went through, the security that Aboriginal people would have is the Australian Constitution protects the states and it gives Aboriginal people powers well beyond the treaty. All of the normal powers vest in Aboriginal people."


Last week, Mansell was at the Summit for Freedom, a delegation of Aboriginal leaders who met in Alice Springs. They're calling for a ​new Aboriginal controlled national body​ to deal with indigenous affairs and made plans to ​converge on Canberra next January 26​ to begin a sit-in outside parliament. Mansell said: "There's widespread concern that the government is freely able to push its own ideas onto Aboriginal people about what the government thinks is good for Aboriginal people. What we've seen as a result is higher imprisonment rates, we've seen communities lose their initiative and lose any hope that something will change."

However one indigenous nation has taken matters into their own hands, declaring independence from Australia on March 30, 2013. The ​Murrawarri Republic​ is situated on the border of NSW and Queensland, encompassing an area of 83,000 square kilometres, with a population of 3,500.

They sent their declaration to the Queen of England requesting documents proving Crown title, but received no response. "We're saying because they haven't signed a treaty or we haven't ceded or they haven't declared war on us, then basically the radical title still applies for the Murrawarri people. Therefore sovereignty remains with us," Fred Hooper, chairman of the provisional council of state of the Murrawarri Republic, said. "We're in the process of writing to the United Nations Decolonisation Committee to be placed on the decolonisation list, because the Commonwealth of Australia is still a colony of England."

Hooper said that while the Murrawarri Republic was the first to declare independence, they're part of a growing movement with several other nations having declared their own independence, including the ​​Wiradjuri Central West Republic​ and the ​Euahlayi Peoples Republic.

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